Some Crying Foul Over President's Policymaking Style

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In his six years in the Oval Office, President Clinton has consistently won the public relations war on education issues with attention-getting proposals like those he unveiled in his State of the Union Address last month.

But on Capitol Hill, Mr. Clinton's methods aren't winning over his opponents. Policy differences aside, some Republicans say Mr. Clinton is making it hard for lawmakers to do their jobs because he offers broad-brush initiatives light on specifics.

Even some lobbyists for the education community, which is generally friendly toward the administration, have expressed frustration.

"It's a problem because you don't know where the money's coming from, you don't know what the definitions mean, and you can't take the proposal seriously," said Joe Karpinski, a spokesman for the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. "To take a proposal seriously, you have to have it written in legislative language." He added: "It's as if all they care about is the sound bite and press release."

Time and again--most recently after the announcement of a new, five-point school accountability plan in the president's Jan. 19 address to Congress--Republicans on the House education committee have been called on to assess Mr. Clinton's initiatives without having a clear idea of what the president is proposing, said Vic Klatt, the House Education and the Workforce Committee's education-policy coordinator. Both Mr. Klatt and Mr. Karpinski are Republican appointees.

The result is confusion not only on Capitol Hill, but also in some of the education associations schools count on to advocate their causes here.

"I've seen it happen repeatedly in his second term," said Bruce Hunter, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Most recently, on the weekend of Jan. 23-24, the AASA and representatives of other education groups met with Department of Education officials, but were unable to get answers to their questions on the president's accountability plan. The proposal would require school districts to take certain steps toward improving their practices in order to receive federal funding.

"We asked very specifically for details on accountability, but they didn't have the details," Mr. Hunter said.

"A lot of things start out as rhetoric, and then they aren't fleshed out," added Sally N. McConnell, the director of government relations for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals.

At the Education Department meetings, "a lot of questions went unanswered because they didn't have details," she said. "Until you know the details, you don't know what the proposal is, and it's frustrating."

Concerns on Teacher Plan

"It's policy by polling," Mr. Klatt charged.

One example of the kind of policy proposal that rankles some Republicans is Mr. Clinton's plan for reducing class sizes by hiring 100,000 new teachers, which was funded at $1.2 billion in the current fiscal year, enough for 30,000 teachers. When it was approved late in the budget negotiations, it became the third-largest K-12 program in the federal education budget.

Mr. Klatt criticized the teacher-hiring plan, saying it has given policymakers major headaches because they are still trying to find a way to make it workable for administrators.

Mr. Hunter said many of the AASA's members--particularly superintendents from rural areas--are hesitant to take the money, not knowing whether it will be there next year and whether they will find qualified teachers to hire.

"The president doesn't think through how this will actually work--what they think about is how it polls," Mr. Klatt contended. "It's often very difficult for us because we don't know exactly what he's talking about."

"They're looking for fights to pick," responded Michael Cohen, who was Mr. Clinton's special assistant for education until last week, when he started a new job as Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley's senior adviser on education reform. "We've got a pretty good track record of sending up proposals and getting them passed, and that's how we're proceeding this year."

"On the other hand, there's been plenty of times we've had legislation up there and they've ignored it," Mr. Cohen added. The legislation for new teachers and smaller classes languished for months, he noted, before it was wrapped into an omnibus budget plan late last year.

In addition to the new accountability proposal and last year's initiative on teacher hiring, observers here recall several other highly touted proposals that they contend the administration failed to follow through on, including:

  • The America Reads initiative from the 1997 State of the Union Address, in which Mr. Clinton proposed funding for a program--first unveiled during his 1996 re-election campaign--to recruit a citizen army of reading tutors. Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said at a news conference last week that "it was the worst piece of legislation that ever came to the Hill, and we rewrote it."

That proposal "seemed to start out as campaign rhetoric, then turned into an initiative," Ms. McConnell of the NAESP said. Congress later approved the Reading Excellence Act, a bill sponsored by Mr. Goodling that provides funding for teacher training in reading methods.

  • The White House held two conferences on early-childhood development and child care last year, and President Clinton proposed a $21.7 billion package that included child-care subsidies, better training for providers, and tax credits for employers.

But his ideas were drowned out by GOP initiatives, and in the end, Congress only approved $172 million for child-care improvements, plus a $10 million research program, while Mr. Clinton turned his focus to K-12 education issues. ("Year of High Hopes for Child Care Comes and Goes," Nov. 11, 1998.)

  • During the Higher Education Act reauthorization last year, the Senate education committee received legislative language for the Education Department's proposals a mere two weeks before the committee voted on the separate HEA bill it had crafted, Mr. Karpinski said. "By then, it was too late for the administration to have any impact," he said.

Some people now say the administration is falling behind in its work on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act this year.

'Rudderless' GOP?

But some Democrats say the GOP is unhappy simply because it hasn't identified an education agenda that can compete with President Clinton's for public support. Regardless of the specifics of particular bills, they say, Mr. Clinton has won the battle for dominance on school issues merely by focusing on problems that strike a chord with the public: childhood literacy, crumbling and crowded buildings, and the lack of a national accountability system.

"Republicans are rudderless on this issue," argued Andrew Rotherham, the director of the 21st Century Schools project for the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank affiliated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which Mr. Clinton once chaired. "Their main problem stems from the fact that they have no education agenda."

And many education groups are pleased just to have a president who considers education a top priority.

"We have an administration that is probably more proactive in education than we've ever seen before," said Michael Resnick, the director of government relations for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. President Clinton's initiatives, he said, are "examining, on a national scope, issues that need to be addressed."

In the past three years, Republicans have had a hard time agreeing on the appropriate federal role in education: In 1995, when the GOP assumed control of Congress, many conservatives went on record saying they hoped to eliminate the Education Department and give control of its programs to states and local districts; moderates saw a need to continue a targeted federal role in addressing the disadvantages some students face.

Now, the GOP has offered a legislative plan that revisits several of its priorities from the last congressional session: the passage of the proposed Dollars to the Classroom Act, which would turn money for 31 programs into a block grant; the creation of tax-free savings accounts for educational expenses; and an increase in federal aid for special education.

Last year, though, Republicans struggled to turn those complicated concepts into tangible proposals the average citizen could appreciate.

"People don't know what block grants mean," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington think tank, and a former education aide to House Democrats. "But when Clinton stands up there and says, 'I want to put a qualified teacher in every classroom,' people understand that."

Details, it seems, are not what the public is hungry for.

This year, "lots of things we'll argue about in Washington will be irrelevant--all the people will remember is that Clinton said he wanted to get results from schools," Mr. Jennings predicted.

Mr. Hunter of the aasa, however, said he sees the GOP beginning to formulate an agenda that could go over well with the public and some education groups.

"Nobody stays far behind permanently unless they're pretty dumb, so I expect the Republicans to close the gap this year," he said. "Finally, they have a consensus that there is a federal role in education."

Mr. Goodling expressed frustration at Mr. Clinton's tactics last week, but said the GOP would continue its "common-sense" education agenda and work with the media to get its message out.

"Very little is known about what the Republicans did in Head Start, no one would know students got the lowest interest rate [for student loans] in 17 years, and no one knows that we consolidated all the job-training programs," he said, naming a few of last year's GOP priorities. "But we did all those things."

Vol. 18, Issue 22, Pages 1, 22-23

Published in Print: February 10, 1999, as Some Crying Foul Over President's Policymaking Style
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